Tiny House Project Empowers Eastern Kentucky Students with Skills for the Future – Kentucky Teacher


The Knott County students and carpentry instructor work hard in the early stages of building their tiny home. Photo courtesy of Dessie Bowling.

Six years ago, former associate director of the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative (KVEC), Dessie Bowling, came up with the idea for a sustainable program that would give students at the Regional Technology Center (ATC) the opportunity to build small houses in eastern Kentucky. Tiny homes often have less than 400 square feet of floor space and are seen as a potential green solution to the existing housing industry, as well as a more affordable transition option for those in housing shortage.

With the help of Jeff Hawkins, former executive director of KVEC, Bowling was able to bring his vision, titled Building it Forward: Tiny House Project, to life.

KVEC is one of eight education cooperatives in Kentucky and is made up of 25 school districts. In 2014, the cooperative won a $30 million Race to the Top grant from the U.S. Department of Education to fund innovation and personalized education in Eastern Kentucky classrooms.

Prior to the grant, local CTAs had limited funding and struggled to keep vocational students engaged.

“Building it Forward: Tiny House Project was born as a way to personalize learning for professional-minded students and keep them involved in school and, most importantly, actively engaged in learning a skill that they ‘they saw it as having a significant impact on their post-secondary life,’ says Bowling.

Bowling said Don Page, the only vocational teacher at Phelps High School (Pike County), found a way to involve the entire Phelps community in the program.

A photo of a small house.

Students from Lee County ATC, with help from students from Wolfe and Owsley County, built this tiny house in 2019, which later withstood a tornado in Kingsley, Iowa. Photo courtesy of Dessie Bowling.

“I think his love for the job shines through in his students. His students are there, rain or shine,” Bowling said.

After talking with local ATC officials, Bowling developed the Building it Forward program with specific goals and a long-term goal to make the work sustainable. Students can learn skills in carpentry, plumbing, electrical, and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) by designing and building the tiny houses. Business students can learn about finance, as well as directing and marketing.

In addition to learning their basic standards, students can develop essential skills such as problem solving, creative thinking, and teamwork.

The tiny homes are being auctioned off by former Knott County ATC director Danny Vance, who is now the project manager for Building it Forward. The money earned from the sale of the houses is donated to the schools to complete a new house each year, making the program sustainable for future classes.

Students work on the roof of a tiny house.

Students from Phelps High School work on the roof of their little house. Photo courtesy of Dessie Bowling.

In its first year, the program was able to award three competitive grants of $15,000 each to local CTAs to build tiny houses.

After submitting an application, students researched all building regulations for tiny homes, designed a floor plan, and submitted a budget. The students pitched their plan to a panel of local businesspeople, federal grant program officers and Integrity Architecture, a Lexington-based firm with roots in eastern Kentucky.

The panel selected Knott County ATC, Phelps High School and Lee County ATC with students from Owsley and Wolfe counties. The groups documented their construction with video and photos.

The students first displayed their completed homes at the Pike County Expo Center on April 12, 2017.

Student-created tiny homes can be found as far away as Pismo Beach, California, Williamsburg, Virginia, and several states in between.

Harlan County Tax Court purchased three homes to use as transitional housing for those recovering. Harlan County High School students are leading an effort to create a small welcoming community for homeless students and people coming out of drug addiction.

Another tiny house built at Lee County ATC in 2019 by students from Lee, Wolfe, and Owsley counties was sent to Kingsley, Iowa, where it withstood a tornado.

A truck with an attached trailer carrying a small house.

A small house built by the students of Phelps High School (above) with guidance from their instructor, Don Page, the only professional instructor at Phelps High School, was later moved to Pismo Beach, California. Photo courtesy of Dessie Bowling.

This school year, six ATCs are building tiny houses of different designs.

Phelps High School’s Tiny House features a downstairs bedroom, stackable washer and dryer, and full-size shower. Lee County ATC has built a 200 square foot custom home that will be delivered to an 81-year-old woman from West Virginia. Knott County ATC built a gooseneck, a trailer in which the front end is arched like a swan’s neck, which is the first of its kind in the region. Breathitt County ATC completed a log cabin-style home, which sold the same day it was listed for a record $39,995.

Floyd County ATCs have a beautiful interior, and Martin County ATC worked with Boxvana, a manufacturer specializing in affordable, hurricane-proof, durable, modern and contemporary labor housing. They used a building material called Litepan, a high-performance composite that is reusable, recyclable, durable, strong, and lightweight.

“Someone asked me what legacy I would leave when I retired,” Bowling said. “Building the future is a legacy that I am proud to leave. I believe that the work done by ATC staff and students has had a significant impact in our rural area.


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